This post was adapted from a blog entry I wrote a few years ago when there was a big blow up in spec fic writing circles surrounding representation of women writers in science fiction:
When I first encountered the stereotype that SF was strictly a boys’ club, it was rather strange to me because it was my mother, not my father, who helped kindle my interest in SF. In fact, my father doesn’t particularly care for most SF. Throughout childhood and high school, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who didn’t tell me I shouldn’t like all those “boy” things I found interesting, like spaceships and splatter flicks. One exception was an adult who, upon seeing that I had brought a copy of Dune to read while babysitting her kids, said, “Why are you reading that? You should be reading my trashy romance novels instead.” I finished Dune while I was there and didn’t have another book with me, so I picked up one of her romance novels. After a few chapters of it’s-not-rape-if-there’s-no-penetration-and-it’s-actually-romantic-because-she-secretly-wants-her-hot-abductor ridiculousness*, I chucked it aside and started re-reading Dune.
Given my otherwise supportive environment growing up, it came as a bit of a surprise to me when, freshman year of college, one guy on my dorm floor refused to believe that I could truly be a hardcore Star Wars fan. Because I was a girl. He took to quizzing me on the films every time he passed me in the hall and emailing me whenever he thought of an obscure bit of Star Wars trivia he was oh-so-sure I wouldn’t be able to answer. I answered them all, quickly and correctly, but it got really annoying really fast. One night, a bunch of us were hanging out watching Return of the Jedi. Quiz dude was there, hammering home the fact that I was the only chick in the room by continuing his interrogation until one of the other guys burst out with, “Would you stop already, she knows her shit!” Sadly, it took admonishment from the alpha male in the room and nothing I said or did to finally convince quiz dude to give it a rest.
Another college incident: Spring 1998 semester, there was a class on women science fiction writers being offered. I very excitedly enrolled. This class was the first time I read Frankenstein. It introduced me to Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, which became one of my all-time favorite novels. We read Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind, and my mind was sufficiently blown. Other books on the syllabus included Gaia’s Toys (Rebecca Ore), The Eye of the Heron (Ursula LeGuin), The Ship Who Sang (Anne McCaffrey), Speaking Dreams (Severna Park), and the professor’s book Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. As if all that wasn’t awesome enough, if you got an A on your first paper, you had the option of writing a short story for your final paper. Gee, bet you can’t guess what I chose to do after getting an A on my first paper. Rather appropriately, the story I wrote for that class eventually became my first paid fiction sale.
Now for the part that marred an otherwise awesome class. We had to do group presentations at one point. I had the misfortune of being grouped with two girls who, when we met up to work on our presentation, spent the better part of the time cattily discussing the poor fashion choices of other women in the class and how some of them were fat and needed to drop some pounds and learn to wear makeup. The real kicker came when the one girl, while complaining that she didn’t like the books we were reading in class, proclaimed that women just can’t write science fiction. Being an aspiring SF writer with a vagina (not that this person would have known about the writer part), that of course pissed me off. But I didn’t want to get into a fight that might impact our project grade; I just wanted to be done and get out of there. So I kept my “Then why the !@#$ are you in this class?” reaction to myself. But I got my dig in later. During the fashion mock-fest, these two girls derided one woman for wearing sweatshirts with Disney characters, because it was childish and she needed to grow up or something. So for the day of our presentation, when they’d be stuck next to me in front of the class, I wore a Yoda t-shirt and a Tigger baseball cap.
Minor fashion victory aside, so many things about that incident bother me. I’m bothered by the castigation of those who are different in how they look or dress and the internalization of unhealthy ideas about body image. I’m bothered that a dislike of a mere seven books was not met with “I don’t care for this professor’s selections” but with a blanket declaration that women can’t write science fiction. That such a statement came from a woman suggests a scary amount of self-loathing. I’m also bothered that, in order for me to have been party to all of these comments, there appeared to have been an assumption that I was “safe” to launch into this tirade around. Perhaps because I was a thin girl who dressed in what they deemed to be socially acceptable fashion (at least until the presentation), I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with those overweight social misfits and would therefore agree that they were to be scorned, right? Yeah, whatever. I’m just as sick of people being mocked for looking like your stereotypical SF geek as I am of having it assumed that I can’t possibly be a SF geek unless I’m wearing the proper uniform (the proper uniform apparently being plus-size clothing, shirts proclaiming one’s fandom affiliations, and/or a penis).
That lovely incident was 15 years ago, so I’d like to believe that we’ve made progress toward achieving gender equality in science fiction circles (and in general) since then. But I still see and experience plenty that tells me we’re not there yet, from contractors who enter my home and assume that the swords and SF toys must be my husband’s, to sexual harassment at cons. And it’d be a lot easier to make progress if we didn’t have to maneuver through all the poo that gets slung about when people debate these issues. Getting that stuff off your shoes? Kind of a pain in the ass.
*I realize that not all romance novels are like that, but this particular book was pretty damn appalling.